Courtesy of Madera Police Officers Association
Officer Denny Shannon, shown here was a pallbearer for officer Richard Thomas, who had been shot while investigating a burglary. Six months later, Shannon himself became the next Madera officer to die in the line of duty.
The pallbearers lifted the coffin from the hearse and carried it to its final resting-place in Arbor Vitae Cemetery. Anger and sorrow filled the air as they prepared to say goodbye to one of their own. Upon reaching the grave, Shirley Bollinger, Elmer Pavey, Ernie Fernandez, Woodrow Hefner, Denny Shannon, and Virgil Van Curen put their burden down and stepped back to join the community in mourning the passing of policeman Richard David Thomas, killed in the line of duty four days earlier. It was the third time Madera had buried a fallen lawman.
Thursday, Sept. 24, 1953, the date of Thomas’ death, should have been a day of jubilation for Madera. Its 16th annual fair was opening, and everyone was looking forward to the “Old Timers’ Parade” on Saturday. However, on Wednesday night fate stepped in to cast a pall over the city.
The tragedy had its beginning as officer Ernest Fernandez made his rounds checking doors in the downtown area. When he reached the Liberty Food Market at 312 Vineyard, Fernandez found the door unlocked. Suspecting that a burglary might be in progress, he phoned police headquarters. Radio calls quickly brought officers Thomas and Van Curen to the scene. The two decided that they would enter from the front while Fernandez would cover the rear exit of the store.
As Fernandez took his position, Thomas and Van Curen cautiously entered the unlocked building and eased their way toward the back with guns drawn. Near the rear of the store a curtain stretched ominously from wall to wall. The two officers were sure that they would find action behind that veil. They were right, but little did they know in what form it would come.
Ramon Gomez Vargas and his wife, Mary, had immigrated to Madera from Mexico in 1939 and were registered aliens. They had previously operated the Paloma Market before they purchased the Liberty Store, which had been the target of burglars numerous times. When Ramon and Mary opened their new Vineyard grocery business, they decided to set up housekeeping on the premises, hence the curtain across the back of the store.
Thus it was on that September night, while officers Thomas and Van Curen eased their way toward the curtain looking for a burglar, on the other side Ramon was loading his .38 caliber revolver, sure that he was hearing burglars from his side of the divider.
At ten minutes before midnight, Ramon Vargas fired his pistol through the curtain. The bullet struck Officer Thomas in the head, and he dropped immediately to the floor, unconscious. Within minutes Fernandez and Van Curen had disarmed Ramon and called for an ambulance.
Jay’s ambulance took Officer Thomas to the Dearborn Hospital on Yosemite Avenue. When Chief Sheriff’s Deputy, Bill Helm, arrived, he arrested Ramon and his wife and transported them to the county jail. Meanwhile, it fell to Officer Shirley Bollinger to take news of the tragedy to the dying man’s family.
Richard and Wanda Thomas lived at 411 North G Street with her mother, Mrs. Lela Forrester. It was shortly after Midnight when Bollinger knocked at the door. He put the two women into a squad car and rushed them to the hospital where both were employed as nurses. There they maintained a vigil in the hallway while the doctors fought to keep the policeman alive.
Officer Thomas fought for his life for nearly eight hours. At 4:30 A.M. he rallied briefly after receiving three pints of blood. At that point, Wanda was allowed to come to her husband’s side. Three hours later she left his bed to tell her family that Richard didn’t make it. He died at 7:30 on the morning of September 24, 1953.
The next day Vargas went before Judge LeRoy Bailey. Represented by attorney Sherwood Green, the grocer was formally charged with violating a section of the Deadly Weapons Control Act, which made it a crime for an alien to possess a pistol. Bail was set at $2,500. Mary Vargas was not charged with a crime and was released from custody.
On Monday, September 28, 1953, Madera police officer Richard David Thomas was laid to rest. Reverend Edwin Brandt, the Baptist minister, officiated, and Chief Walter Thomas, Sergeant Les Flum, Henry Camy, Joe Ahles, John Voith, and Ray Laswell served as honorary pallbearers. The Madera American Legion Post gave the fallen officer full military honors.
So, sixty years after Madera became the county seat of Madera County, and forty-six years after the town became an incorporated city, a third police officer paid the ultimate price to protect the lives and property of the community. Meanwhile his widow was left with a little girl to raise. One wonders how life treated young Theresa Thomas after she had to give up her Daddy.